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pear_thief: If you want me to believe you’re really ageofthegeek, you’re going to have to prove your bona fides.
ageofthegeek: What do you expect me to do?
ageofthegeek: OK. Fine.
ageofthegeek: That Pentagon hack you did twelve years back. You used the backdoor the CIA worked in to keep an eye on them, right?
ageofthegeek: You still there?
Amanita rests her chin on Nomi’s shoulder and watches the messages appear in her chat client. “Who is this ageofthegeek guy anyway?”
“He’s the best,” Nomi says. “There’s all kinds of rumors about him. They say he runs with the baddest crew on the West Coast. And if he knows how I did the Pentagon hack, and when, then he’s as good as the stories say. Better.”
“So we’re going to bring these guys on to help us take down BPO? Hardcore criminals? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“This is what his crew does,” Nomi says. “They take on ‘clients’ with inside knowledge of corporations and use them to rob big companies blind. That’s what a big-time hacker named Chaos said about them on the forums, anyway. We know BPO’s got a lot of money. Ageofthegeek will want in.”
Amanita lays her hand on Nomi’s other shoulder and says gently, “Okay. But let’s be careful.” She tilts her head. “Why is your username pear_thief?”
“My mother made me read way too much fucking Aquinas,” Nomi says darkly. “There’s this whole part in one of his books about how he stole some pears once when he was a kid, and his lust for forbidden fruit and how sinful it all is, and it’s all such an obvious metaphor for wanting sex that even when I was fourteen I got it.”
“So your username is a metaphor for stealing the forbidden fruit of sex.” Amanita smiles against Nomi’s cheek and kisses it. “Typical.”
pear_thief: Okay. I believe you.
ageofthegeek: I can meet you in San Francisco tomorrow.
pear_thief: How did you know?
pear_thief: You know what, never mind. Meet me at Cafe Flore at 3 pm. I’ll flag my table with a red and a blue kerchief.
Parker: Should I bring my rappelling gear in my carry-on?
Hardison: I have no idea if the job’s gonna be in San Francisco or not. Better safe than sorry.
The sterile beige of the motel where Wolfgang is staying fades out, replaced by a white awning, a warm breeze, the clink of spoons against ceramic, and the whoosh of slowly passing cars. Nomi and her girlfriend have outside seating at a cafe in the heart of the city. There are two empty chairs at their table. Amanita stirs sugar into her coffee. The corners of two colored handkerchiefs are pinned under her mug.
“Who are you waiting for?” Wolfgang asks Nomi.
“A backup plan,” Nomi says.
Handsome guys of all shapes and sizes walk by in tight T-shirts and tighter jeans. But only one of them sits down at Nomi’s table. “So,” he says, flashing a bright smile. “Which of you is the pear thief?”
Nomi’s girlfriend lifts her mug to her lips and sweeps the handkerchiefs into her jacket pocket. “That’d be her. I’m here for moral support.”
A waitress comes and takes the man’s order. “Orange soda,” he says, giving her a smile too. He seems to smile at everyone. It makes Wolfgang think of Capheus. When the waitress is gone, he turns back to Nomi. “How can I help you?”
“You mean, who do we want you to steal from,” Nomi’s girlfriend says quietly, looking around to make sure no one is listening. Amateur, Wolfgang thinks. The best way to discuss crime in public is as nonchalantly as possible.
“If you want to put it that way,” the man says, leaning back in his chair. “I like to think we have a broader repertoire than just stealing.”
“The Biologic Preservation Organization,” Nomi says. “A multinational corporation devoted to studying mutations in the human genome, or so they claim. They’re headquartered in Reykjavik. The guy in charge goes by several aliases. Dr. Matheson, Dr. Friedman – and we heard one of his employees call him Milton.”
“You say they claim to be studying the human genome,” says Nomi’s guest. “Like you know they’re doing something different.”
Nomi takes an aggressive swig of tea. “He hired someone to perform brain surgery on me without my consent. They convinced my mother I was crazy and had me held in a hospital against my will.”
“Whoa,” says the man. “Why the hell did they do that?”
Wolfgang is amazed he took Nomi at her word. Or maybe he was just pretending to. Nomi’s eyes flicked toward Wolfgang, brows tilted into a question. How much should they tell him? Wolfgang shakes his head.
“I don’t know,” Nomi says. “But they’re still after me. Maybe they want a sample from my brain or something, I don’t know.”
The waitress comes back with the man’s order of orange soda, coming up behind him with the tray. He takes the soda off the tray without looking at it, perfectly coordinated like a dance. Wolfgang has seen this dance. He and the waitress have worked lifts and drops together before. “She’s part of his crew,” Wolfgang tells Nomi.
“What’s she here for?” Nomi says smoothly, nodding toward the waitress. “Is she moral support too?”
Nomi’s girlfriend does a double take between her and the waitress.
The waitress sets a glass down next to the soda and takes position next to the man’s chair. He smiles and says, “You could say that. Damn, you’re good.” A chuckle. He waves up at the waitress. “This is Parker. My partner in crime.”
Wolfgang stares at her. She’s graceful, and good at being unobtrusive. But could she really be the Parker?
Nomi must have sensed his curiosity, because she looks sideways at him again. Wolfgang says, “Parker is the name of the greatest thief currently operating in the Western Hemisphere. If he’s telling the truth, your backup plan has some serious firepower.”
Parker – if that’s who she really is – rests her hand on the arm of her partner’s chair. “This is Hardison,” she says, without any clarification of what he is to her.
Nomi introduces herself and Amanita, first names only. Not much additional risk there; just reporting their physical descriptions to BPO would have gotten them in as much trouble as the names.
Hardison chugs his orange soda. “I’m gonna do some research on these people. We’ll get back in touch soon.”
Parker looks at Nomi and Amanita, level and serious. “Don’t worry, Nomi. Whatever it is they want to do to you, we’re not going to let them do it.”
Wolfgang watches Parker and Hardison go. He says, “I’ve heard all kinds of rumors about Parker. Art she’s stolen, vaults she’s robbed. I never heard that she cared about people.”
“I’m a criminal, Wolfgang,” Nomi murmurs, “and I care about people. Same goes for you.”
“So what? You’re saying they steal because they care?”
Nomi turns to her girlfriend. “What do you think?”
Amanita couldn’t hear their conversation. But she says, “We’re not exactly spoiled for choice. Let’s give them a try.”
Hardison: Something’s still bothering me about our meeting with Nomi.
Hardison: I asked her why they wanted to do brain surgery on her, and she waited a long time before saying she didn’t know.
Parker: You think she was too scared to tell us the real reason?
Parker: She’ll tell you eventually. You’re very charming.
Hardison: Hey. So are you.
Eliot: What did you think?
Parker: She and her partner seemed scared. Really scared.
Parker: We need to protect them.
Eliot: Just tell me where to go and I’m on it.
Parker: Wear your comm. Tell us if you need backup.
Parker: I mean it. Just because it’s a punchy situation doesn’t mean we can’t help.
Hardison: Hey, this is Hardison.
Nomi: I know. You’re not the only one who can hack a phone.
Hardison: I salute you, ma’am.
Nomi: So. What now?
Hardison: My crew’s still working on a plan. In the meantime, we want you under protection. We have a security specialist who can help out. Your safe house or ours is fine by me, though I’d bet you half my server stacks that my safe house has better lockdown.
Nomi: My safe house. I’m not ready to be under your lock and key.
Hardison: I gotcha. It’s not paranoia when they’re really out to get you.
Nomi is with Sun in solitary confinement. She visits whenever she has a spare moment and senses that Sun is alone. It’s eerily quiet in her cell. Sun goes through her forms, flexing and stretching her body, asking nothing of Nomi but her silent presence.
A knocking sound plucks at Nomi’s attention. Sun’s head snaps toward it, too. The rest of Nomi’s apartment trickles in: the bubble of water boiling for tea, the twang of Amanita’s favorite folk guitar music.
Nomi’s phone buzzes. There’s a text from Hardison. That’s the security specialist. Let him in.
“That’s our guy,” Nomi tells Amanita, and opens the door.
The man at the door is shorter than her, stocky, older than Hardison and Parker, his hair a lush chestnut mane. “Nomi?” he says.
“That’s me.” She can feel Amanita drawing close. “This is my partner, Amanita.”
Amanita reaches out to shake his hand, her eyes prying into him. Trying to protect Nomi from any potential threat, like always. “Eliot,” their visitor says.
Inside the apartment, his bright blue eyes do a sweep of the room. He folds his arms. “This place is a security nightmare. Lock the windows and pull the blinds down. Someone could be photographing us right now.”
The open windows are letting in a nice breeze, but this Eliot guy looks like he means business. Nomi follows his suggestion, and reluctantly, Amanita joins her.
“I’ve got eyes on the street,” Eliot says, tapping at his phone. “If anyone tries to break in, get behind me.”
Suddenly, Nomi feels Sun with her, sharing her skin. “I can fight.” She can feel Amanita glaring at her. Let Sun protect me if she wants to, Nomi wishes she could say.
Eliot raises his eyebrows. “You can, huh?”
Sun, taking up the space of Nomi’s body, steps into the open area of the apartment. “Do you want to see?”
“Nomi,” Amanita says urgently. “Why don’t we just let the nice beefy man do all the punching for us?”
Nomi would be fine with that. But she thinks that Sun needs to do this. “It’ll be fine,” Sun says with Nomi’s lips, keeping her eyes on Eliot. “We’re just sparring.”
Eliot turns sideways into a fighting stance. Sun does the same. Nomi feels Sun’s attention on his breath, the stirring of a stray strand of hair by his face. She strikes.
The burst of violence that follows is too fast for Nomi to really understand, even though it’s her own body doing it. Sun manages to get Eliot on the ground, but he kicks her and springs back up, and then it’s her on the ground, Eliot’s arm a bar across her throat. “You can fight,” he says, his eyes fierce and joyful.
“So can you,” Sun says. Eliot gets off of her. Nomi can see Amanita staring at them.
“You box,” Eliot says. “Ultimate fighting, too.”
“Yes,” Sun says, getting up.
Eliot touches his ribs where Sun kicked him. “You don’t have to stand behind me. Though, just as a pointer, you aren’t using your reach as much as you should. You’re a tall woman. You didn’t need to come in so close to land your hits.”
Sun is next to Nomi, now, not inside her skin. “He and I are the same height. I didn’t take your body type into account.”
“Water’s ready,” Amanita says, with the air of someone trying to restore order. “Who wants tea?”
Hardison: How’s it going with our clients?
Eliot: They’re nice. They’re like those hippie types back in Portland.
Eliot: Nomi is a serious fighter, though. Trained. Turns out geeks can be badass after all.
Hardison: Hey! You told me last week my takedowns are getting better.
Eliot: I’ve been teaching your sorry ass for five years and you still can’t pin me.
Hardison: But I can pin the bad guys, and that’s what matters.
Hardison: Hey, can you take a call in private? Me and Parker got some plans we want to talk to you about.
All three members of the gang are here. Well, to be fair, Amanita thinks, there could be more than three of them. There are more than two of us, after all.
“I’ve been looking into BPO’s financials, and they are seriously janky,” says Hardison, sketching out inscrutable shapes with his hands. “Stolen diamonds, companies hidden behind more shells than a sandy beach, all kinds of stuff.”
All the air in the room seems to be sucked toward Parker. Her eyes gleam, and Hardison and Eliot lean toward her like she’s their center of gravity. She says, “Money is where we’re gonna nail ‘em.” Her mouth goes serious around the edges. “But we’re going to have use you as bait, Nomi. We won’t let them get you, I promise. But if you want to con someone, you have to know what they want. And you’re the one thing we know for sure they want.”
Amanita does not like the sound of this.
Nomi says slowly, “What do you mean, use me as bait?”
“Hardison and Eliot will play shady international kidnappers who got hold of you,” Parker says.
“I looked online,” Hardison puts in. “Turns out some shady international kidnappers have noticed people getting snatched around here. Guy named Niles Bolger and an unknown female. We can pretend we managed to track down who you were and who was after you, and decided we’d grab you and get some cash out of it.”
Nomi shakes her head. “I can’t go near him. I can’t. It’s too dangerous.”
“No one ever brings the hostage to a first meeting,” Eliot says, with disturbing certainty. “We’ll show him a live video feed from a remote location.”
Amanita is about to ask whether Whispers and his people will be able to tell where the feed is coming from, until she remembers that she’s working with career criminals here. “You’ll need me too,” she says instead. “They’ll never believe that you’ve captured her without me. I’d follow her anywhere.”
Nomi flashes her a sweet smile. “Speaking of remote locations. We’re going to have to go to Iceland for this, aren’t we?”
Hardison nods. “I’ll arrange the transportation. I’ve already found a sketchy warehouse in Reykjavik we can keep you in.”
“Oh joy,” says Amanita.
“And while Hardison and Eliot have them distracted,” Parker says, “I’ll go after the stolen diamonds. We’re going to catch them in something so illegal that not even their fancy lawyers can get them out of it.”
Nomi asks them more questions about the plan, and the way she pries into the way the three of them are going to work together, Amanita gets the sense that it’s mostly Wolfgang talking; Nomi wouldn’t think to ask these things. Amanita’s starting to learn the signs of when her girlfriend isn’t entirely her girlfriend.
When they’re done, Parker and Hardison make to go. Eliot tells Nomi and Amanita that he’ll be right back, and steps out into the hallway with them. Amanita goes to the peephole to see what they’re doing, because even if they seem nice enough, they’re still criminals, and she wants to know what they’re up to.
They’re not casing the apartment building, as Amanita half-expected them to be doing. Instead, they’re talking intensely to each other, though she can’t hear what they’re saying. Then, Parker and Hardison each press a dry kiss to Eliot’s face, before they go. Amanita backs away from the door quickly before Eliot comes back in. By the time he opens the door, she’s scrolling through her Facebook feed like nothing happened.
Eliot sleeps on an air mattress on the floor. Amanita and Nomi go to bed. “What did you think of the plan?” Amanita murmurs.
“Lito liked it. He said it was like a heist movie. Wolfgang wasn’t sure if they really could take down BPO, but at least we could take some of their money.”
Amanita huffs. “I asked what you thought, not what the cluster thought.”
Nomi laughs noiselessly. “Sorry. I just can’t believe I’m really doing this. I mean, I’ve broken the law before, pretty seriously, but it was always from a distance, you know? Just me and my computer. This is getting involved on a whole other level. So I don’t really know what I think.”
“I guess it comes down to whether we trust them,” Amanita says.
“I don’t,” Nomi says. “Not really. I trust that they want to take this company for everything it’s worth, and I think they’ll get more money from stiffing BPO than from turning us in. But if that changes for some reason, they might just give us up to save themselves.” Nomi runs a fingertip along Amanita’s jawline. “What about you?”
Amanita thinks of what she saw through the peephole. The three criminals care for each other. But that doesn’t mean they care for Amanita or Nomi. “I think we need to be careful.”
Nomi is on a boat with Riley, who is at Will’s bedside with her laptop, making a playlist. “What’s it for?” Nomi asks.
“It’s for Wolfgang,” Riley says. She points to the screen. There’s dance music and German heavy metal.
“I have playlists for all of you,” Riley says. “It’s my way to understand you.”
Nomi is about to ask to see her playlist, but the slap of the waves and the roar of the motor die away. She’s back in a warehouse in Reykjavik, bound hand and foot to a chair beside Amanita. There’s a video camera on a tripod pointed at them. The recording light comes on.
Amanita and Nomi are supposed to look scared. With a doorway open in her head to Riley, watching over an unconscious Will, it’s easy for Nomi to summon fear. Her chest feels tight and her fingers are going numb. “You okay, Neets?”
“Hanging in there,” Amanita says, but her voice is strained.
The recording light blinks off. Through the comm in her ear, Nomi hears Parker say, “Hardison, Eliot, abort. I’m on the lower level. They have kids locked up in here.”
Nomi’s blood runs cold. She doesn’t understand. Why would BPO have taken kids?
“We’re not the only cluster,” Riley whispers. “There are other sensates out there. Some of them could be kids.”
“I’m getting the kids out of here,” Parker says. “I need backup.”
Nomi reaches with her fingers for the knife stashed under the seat of her chair, just in case. “You ready to get loose?” she asks Amanita.
Amanita smiles. “Ready when you are.”
Nomi eases at the ropes on her wrists, which Parker tied with slipknots. The rope slides through the slipknots, and she’s free. Her feet go next. She stands up, knife in hand.
Amanita rubs her hands together, trying to get the feeling back in them. “Now what?”
Nomi’s finger goes to the comm in her ear. “Anything we can do?”
“Stay put,” Parker says tersely, and Nomi decides not to interrupt what she’s doing any more than she has to.
Wolfgang appears in the dim expanse of the empty warehouse. Distantly, Nomi can hear summer rain hammering against his window in Germany. He looks around, but doesn’t comment. Then Nomi hears the sound of footsteps pounding toward the warehouse, and Wolfgang stiffens. “Shit,” he says. “Your plan’s all gone to hell, hasn’t it?”
“How did they find us?” Amanita says. Her eyes flick around, but there’s nowhere to hide.
Nomi moves between Amanita and the door. “I don’t know. Maybe they clocked us entering the country and got a clue from the video feed about where we were. Stay behind me, Neets.”
It’s the middle of the night in Korea, but in her cell, Sun is unmoored from the rhythm of sunlight. She rolls out of bed and comes up with her fists ready. The door to the warehouse bursts inward, and Wolfgang is a blur of motion toward the four black-clad goons coming in. When he collides with them, he lashes out with the knife, then passes off Nomi’s body to Sun as easily as a dancer passing his partner to a new lead on the ballroom floor – and Sun sweeps her into a choreography of violence.
Nomi’s had Sun help her fight before, though never against so many. Even though she’s pretty sure she’s winning, it hurts . Every punch she lands is a flare of pain across her knuckles, and every blow she blocks rattles up and down her arm bones. It’s only Sun’s discipline that keeps her going after a goon manages a punch to her gut; if it were up to Nomi, she’d be crying in a ball on the floor.
Sun and Wolfgang move together as if they were fighting back to back instead of in the same body. Sun punches and kicks, while Wolfgang gets in jabs with the knife. When Sun gets the men on the ground, Wolfgang gets in extra kicks while they’re down, making sure they don’t get up again.
When it’s over, Nomi’s panting for every breath, every inch of her body is covered in sweat, and her nose is swollen and bleeding – though she’s pretty sure some of the blood on her face isn’t hers. Wolfgang raises his hand for a high-five, and after a moment of staring, Sun tentatively slaps her hand against his. Nomi shoves the bloody knife in her pocket, rests her hands on her knees, and wheezes out a long laugh.
Amanita stands over her, a hand barely resting on her shoulder, wild-eyed. “Nomi. Nomi. Are you okay?”
“I need to stop getting in situations like this,” Nomi gasps out between laughs that sound more and more like dry sobs. “I hate fighting, Neets. I hate it.”
Amanita pulls her into a hug. Nomi sags against her girlfriend, leaning on her until the shakes are gone. When Nomi’s able to stand on her own, Amanita goes to check on the fallen men. Nomi presses the comm in her ear. “Parker. We got made. Four guys.”
“We know,” Parker says. Nomi realizes the green recording light on the camera is on. “Go to our hotel room. 2432. Your keys should work on it. We’ll meet you there.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Nomi says.
“Hardison made the booking with solid false IDs,” Parker says firmly. “It’s safe.” In the background, Nomi hears a child crying. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Parker says, more softly. “Just follow me and you’ll be okay.”
Nomi goes to Amanita. “Are they alive?” she says quietly. She can’t even look at the men she took apart.
“Yeah,” Amanita says. “But we should get an ambulance here, soon.”
Nomi takes Amanita’s hands. “Parker says we have to go.”
“And you think we should listen to Parker,” Amanita says.
“We can trust them.” For the first time, Nomi really believes that. “Let’s go.”
Riley happens to be listening to Nomi’s playlist – riot grrrl punk and ‘60s hippie music – when she finds herself sitting beside Nomi’s girlfriend on a loveseat in a huge hotel suite. Nomi is on her feet, pacing slowly through the room; her hair is sweat-damp and wild. There’s a tall, handsome man in a slightly rumpled suit who Riley doesn’t recognize. He taps at a phone in his hand and says, “Eliot and Parker are almost here with the kids. I’ve been wiping any footage of them caught by cameras as they come into the city.” He looks up from his phone at Nomi and Amanita. “The kids are, ah, kinda strange.”
“Strange how?” Nomi says.
“They haven’t said a word so far,” he says. “That could be because of the trauma. But they’re also real attached to each other. Mr. CEOverlord over there was keeping the kids in separate cells. But now that they’re out, they act like a unit. Just staying real close together without talking to each other.”
Riley looks at Nomi. “Where did these kids come from?”
“You got any idea why BPO would kidnap kids?” the man in the suit says. “‘Cause me and Eliot and Parker, we take that kind of thing personally.”
“They’re a cluster, aren’t they?” Riley says. She holds Nomi’s gaze for a long moment. Fear and disgust shiver through her. What did Whispers want with children?
Before Nomi has to decide how to answer, the hotel door opens. A man and a woman come in, who Riley supposes must be Eliot and Parker, followed by four children, only seven years old, by Riley’s guess. They stay in a line behind Eliot and Parker like ducklings. Riley kneels down to their level, though she knows they see Nomi, not her.
Nomi looks them in the eye, one by one. Riley realizes what she’s doing. She’s looked them in the eye; she can visit them in their heads, show them that she’s a sensate too.
Riley can’t feel it when Nomi visits them, but she sees the reaction: all four kids turn to stare at her in unison. Amanita gasps. Riley has to admit it’s a little creepy. “I’m like you,” Nomi says gently. “See?” No response from the kids. “Do you speak English?” Still nothing. Riley doubts any of them speak Icelandic, so she doesn’t offer it.
“Español?” Parker tries. Nothing. She turns to her friend in the suit. “You got anything, Hardison?” He shakes his head.
Eliot tries a language that Riley thinks might be Arabic. One of the children, a boy with a sharp face and red-brown skin, talks back uncertainly. Eliot kneels down like Riley and talks back, his voice low and soft. The boy points to the other children one by one as he replies. Eliot looks up at Parker and the other man. “They took these kids from all over. This boy, Youssef, is from Morocco. The other two boys are from different parts of China, and the girl is from Brazil.”
“Are they okay?” Riley says, hearing the question come out of Nomi’s mouth.
Eliot has another soft-voiced exchange with Youssef. The boy’s shoulders slump as he speaks, and the other children draw close around him. “They’re not hurt,” Eliot tells the rest of them. “They just want to go home.”
“Why would they do this?” Parker says, voice tight. “Why would they take these kids away?”
Eliot looks like he’s figuring out a way to ask the children. Riley tells Nomi, “We can’t let the kids be the ones to explain this. They’ve been through enough. We have to tell them.”
Wolfgang appears, arms folded across his chest. “Can we trust them with this? They’re criminals. And anyway, they won’t believe us.”
“Wolfgang,” Riley says. “You’re a criminal. And they helped these kids.”
Nomi gets to her feet. “I know why. Or at least, I know part of why.”
Amanita takes her hand and squeezes it. The three strangers all stare at Nomi. Hardison says, “You finally gonna tell us why BPO’s been after you?”
“Maybe we should get the children settled first,” Riley puts in. “Eliot, can you ask them if they want to rest?”
Eliot asks them a question in Arabic. This time, the girl responds, in the same language. Riley thinks of how she can understand Swahili when she’s with Capheus. Eliot’s eyebrows rise, but he leads the kids over to a king-sized bed and hoists them onto it one by one. They settle in, their arms and legs overlapping, like brothers and sisters. Riley’s eyes burn, watching them.
They go to the other room of the suite, so as not to disturb the children. Eliot, Parker, and Hardison take the couch, and Nomi and Amanita take the two chairs facing it. Riley stands behind Nomi’s chair, studying the three criminals who rescued a cluster of children. The way they settle into the couch is perfectly in sync, almost as if they’re a cluster themselves.
Nomi and Amanita look at each other. Nomi glances down and bites her lip. Amanita sighs and says, “Nomi and the kids are psychic.”
Hardison leans back and folds his arms across his chest. “Oh, come on. You could at least try a little harder. Tell us you’re some kind of special super-geniuses or something. But psychic? Seriously?”
Parker’s face is a blank mask. But Eliot just looks thoughtful. “That Brazilian girl, Lucia. She spoke Arabic fluently. Accented, but fluent.”
Hardison and Parker turn to stare at Eliot. He goes on, “And Nomi fights like two completely different people.”
“What do you mean?” Parker says.
“When we sparred in her apartment,” Eliot says, “she fought like someone who’d been trained in boxing, and had experience in the ring in ultimate fighting. When she fought in the warehouse, she fought that way most of the time. But when she used the knife, she moved like someone who learned knife fighting from the school of hard knocks. Down and dirty street fighting. And I don’t mean she learned street fighting, then boxing. I mean most of the time she fights like someone who pretty much only fights in the ring. Then part of the time she fights like someone who only fights in the street.”
Now everyone is staring at Eliot. He shrugs. “They’re very distinctive fighting styles.” For some reason, that makes Parker and Hardison’s mouths twitch into smiles.
“Are you saying you believe that they’re psychic?” Hardison says.
“I’m saying I’m willing to hear them out,” Eliot replies.
Nomi turns off her phone and puts it on the coffee table. “Go into the other room and move something,” she says. “If any of the kids are awake, I’ll know what it was.”
Hardison gives Eliot and Parker a significant look. Eliot goes to the other room, closing the door quietly behind him. Nomi closes her eyes. “There’s a blue striped tie hanging from the handle of the wardrobe door. He’s folding it and putting it in a drawer.”
Eliot comes back. “What did you do?” Parker asks.
“Put away that tie Hardison left lying around.”
Parker narrows her eyes at Nomi. “What number am I thinking of?”
Nomi shakes her head. “It doesn’t work like that. I can only do it with other, uh, psychics.”
Hardison snorts. “Heard that one before.”
“She’s not lying,” Amanita says crossly. “You can call one of the people she’s connected to if you like. We’ll give you some phone numbers and one of you can take a walk with her. Anything one of you says on the phone to them, Nomi will be able to repeat back to you.”
“I’m making the phone calls,” Hardison says. “I’ll make sure they’re highly encrypted.”
“I’ll go out with Nomi,” Eliot offers.
“Me too,” Parker says.
“I’ll give them your number, Riley,” Nomi says to her. Riley does a double-take; she’s not used to the other sensates talking to her when there are people around to hear. Everyone but Amanita stares at her. “Uh. Who else is available?”
Riley isn’t sure how this whole sensate thing works. Most of the time, it seems to be random. But she thinks of Nomi’s riot grrrl punk, and back on the ship with Will, she changes over to the rough energy of Wolfgang’s playlist. Suddenly, she’s standing with Wolfgang in his shower, hot water coursing down her face and neck. She blushes, but says, “Come here,” and turns her mind back to Nomi in the hotel suite. He appears with her, wet and naked.
Nomi blinks at him, then laughs. “Okay.” She picks up a pad of hotel stationery and a pen, and they use her hand, one after the other, to write down their phone numbers. “Anyone else?”
“Capheus’s time zone is not so different,” Riley says. The boat rocks beneath her as she flips to Capheus’s playlist, hip hop and soundtracks to Van Damme movies. She joins him under his bus as he works on repairs; it’s taken one hell of a beating. “Do you have a minute?” she asks, and pulls him with her to the hotel room.
“These people rescued four sensate children from BPO,” Riley tells Capheus. “They may be able to help more. But they need a demonstration.”
“I understand. It was hard to believe even as it was happening to me.” Capheus adds his number to the list.
Riley follows Nomi, Eliot, and Parker out to the familiar streets of Reykjavik. “I don’t like psychics,” Parker says conversationally. “One of them cold-read me once in front of a crowd of people. He went to prison for, what, ten years?”
“Seven,” Eliot says. “He just got out a couple months ago.”
“I can’t read your mind, Parker,” Nomi says.
“But you’re saying you can read those kids’ minds,” Eliot says. “Anyone else who’s psychic.”
“No. I can just see what they see. Hear what they hear.”
“So you could just invade their privacy whenever you wanted to,” Parker points out.
Nomi’s face flushes. “I would never do that! That’s what Whispers does to us!”
Riley closes her eyes, opens them, looks at Will kept drugged and insensible because of Whispers doing what Parker accused them of doing. She blinks again, and she’s back on the street with Nomi.
“Whispers?” Eliot says. “Who’s that?”
“Dr. Matheson, Dr. Friedman, whoever he is,” Nomi says. “That’s what we call him. He hunts us down, invades our minds, uses our own senses to betray us. It’s horrible. I would never do that to those kids. If they don’t want me to visit them with my mind, I won’t.”
“But it’s not like Hardison’s hacker stuff,” Eliot says. “You can’t put up a firewall, keep each other out.”
Nomi sighs. “I don’t know. Maybe we can. But I don’t know how.”
In the distance, Riley hears a generic ringtone. “It’s for us, yes?” she hears Capheus say.
Riley hits play on Capheus’s playlist. She feels herself pulled toward the dark space under Capheus’s bus, and she pulls Nomi along with her.
Capheus takes his cell phone out of his pocket. The screen glows in the dimness under the bus. The number is blocked. Capheus answers it. “Hello?”
“Six two six four three three eight three two seven nine,” says Hardison’s voice, tinny over the line.
Back on the street in Reykjavik, Nomi covers her face with her hand. “You nerd,” she says. “Hardison just told Capheus the twentieth through thirtieth digits of pi.”
Parker: Twentieth through thirtieth digits of pi to Capheus. The Kenya number.
Parker: Watching her talk to empty space is weird. Is that what we’re like when we use the comms?
Hardison: We don’t talk out loud when we use the comms. We subvocalize.
Hardison: And damn, how does she know?
Parker: She says you said ‘4advxmfhy85!q’ to Wolfgang. That’s the number in Germany.
Parker: I wonder what it’s like for Amanita to have a psychic girlfriend. I don’t think I’d like it if you and Eliot were psychic.
Hardison: She’s not psychic, Parker! We convinced a guy he was attacked by aliens that one time, remember?
Parker: You recited Neruda’s sonnet 76 to Riley. In Spanish, with a really bad accent.
Parker: Nomi says she’s psychic with a Mexican guy who likes that poem. He says he doesn’t want to hear a gringo recite that poem ever again.
Amanita has the door open between the rooms of the suite, in case the kids need anything. She stands by the door watching them. It’s not like she has anything better to do; Hardison made her change into a bathrobe, turned out all her pockets, and turned off her phone and tablet and took out the batteries. Everything electronic in the apartment is disconnected from its power source except Hardison’s phone.
The kids are awake now. They don’t say a word to each other. One of them explores the hotel room, staring out the window and opening the mini-fridge, while the other three lie in a cuddle pile on the bed. They don’t need to talk, do they? Not with each other. And only one kid needs to explore the room, when the rest of them can see everything through his eyes.
“What’s it like?” Hardison says. Amanita jerks away from the door. Hardison continues. “Having a psychic girlfriend?”
Amanita studies him. He’s looking seriously freaked out; his hand keeps clenching and unclenching around his phone. She can empathize. She joins him on the couch. Maybe there’s something she could say that would calm him down, somehow. But she doesn’t know this man, so she has no idea what would be comforting to him. Instead, she just says the truth. “It’s like sharing her. All the time. All of her, even the things I thought were only for me, that only I knew.” Amanita looks up at Hardison and smiles faintly. “But you’d know a lot about that, wouldn’t you?”
“What are you saying?” Hardison demands.
“You’re polyamorous with Eliot and Parker.” She pauses to check Hardison’s reaction. He doesn’t try to deny it; they all have one hotel room with one big bed. He’s expectant, waiting to see where she’s going with this. “I’m totally fine with polyamory, but I’ve always been mono. We were mono. But now Nomi is connected to seven other people, in ways that I can never be connected to her, and I’ve basically been thrown into this poly relationship I wasn’t ready for.” Amanita twirls a braid around her finger. “I still want to be with Nomi for the rest of my life. And from what I can tell, these people in her cluster, they’re good people. But it’s a big adjustment. So.” She looks up at Hardison, who’s stopped twitching. His face is open and soft. “What’s it like, Hardison? Sharing someone you love?”
Hardison takes a long time to think it over. She catches him rubbing absently at the base of his ring finger, even though there’s no ring there. “Me and Parker and Eliot have been together for years now. Three, or four, or maybe even eight, depending on how you count it. I’ve learned a few things along the way. But maybe the most important is that nobody shares everything. People are too complicated for that. You could share and share with the same person your entire life and they still wouldn’t have everything. Partly because when you share with someone, they change you, and then there’s a new part of you they don’t know about.”
Amanita thinks of Nomi, laughing hysterically over the unconscious bodies of four men she beat into submission, her face and hands streaked with blood. Yes, being part of the cluster has definitely changed her.
“So with any two people, there’s always going to be something you have that no one else has. Eliot and Parker have this whole freaky nonverbal communication thing that I’ve never really been able to get in on. Me and Parker both grew up in the foster system, and Eliot’s never gonna get what that’s like for us. And me and Eliot, we’re into the normal romantic stuff that Parker just doesn’t do. What I’m trying to say is it’s a good thing that Eliot and Parker have things together that I don’t have. I think ‘cause she doesn’t have to talk when she’s with Eliot, it’s easier for her to talk with me. What they’ve got going on changed her, and I get to see that.”
Hardison smiles at some memory Amanita can’t see or imagine. “Sharing Nomi is gonna change her, Amanita. That’s just how it goes. The important part is that you change together. That’s what the three of us promised we’d do, three years ago. And now that I’ve seen us change together, it means even more than it did back then.”
“You’re really smart, Hardison,” Amanita says. “I don’t just mean with computers. And you use all those brains to help people. That’s amazing.”
“I didn’t always hack to help people,” Hardison says. “But ever since I started working with them, I did. Every time.”
“Nomi and the cluster can do so much now, with their connection,” Amanita says. “Maybe one day, when all of this crap with BPO is over, they could team up to help people. Just like you and Eliot and Parker do. I think it’s all too scary and new to them, right now. But one day? I really think they could.”
“Well, when they’re ready, give us a call,” Hardison says. “We’ve been trying to go international for a few years now. Having a team of psychics all over the world would go a long way. If they’re all like your girl Nomi, they’ll be a crack team.”
“Nobody’s like Nomi,” Amanita says. “No matter how psychic they get with each other. There’s nobody like Nomi in the whole world.” She looks down at her hands, then back up at Hardison. “Do you think we can still beat them? BPO? Your cover’s blown now. They know your faces.”
“Don’t worry about us, girl. We got this. We got a couple of old grifter friends we can call out of retirement. For this, it’s worth it. Anyone who kidnaps kids is in for a world of hurt from our crew.” Hardison grins. “We’re gonna steal us some psychics.”
Parker checks in over the comms. “Eliot? How’s Daniela doing?”
“Fine. Not a scratch on her, even after I had to fight off five of her dad’s goons.”
“Hey!” Hardison says. “Mexico City doesn’t have nearly as many security cameras as cities in the U.S. I’m flying blind out here.”
“What about you?” Parker says.
“Me?” Eliot says. “I’m fine. Just the usual. You two focus on grifting the dad. I’ll keep looking out for Daniela.”
“What do you say, Hardison?” Parker says. “Ready to introduce Mr. Velasquez to the exciting new counterfeit drug market in Indonesia?”
“Let me just send one more text to Nomi,” Hardison says. “You got the goods from the rival cartel?”
The smile is audible in Parker’s voice. “They hid them in the air vent. Stealing them was fun.”
“Then my imaginary Indonesian buyer just can’t wait to see what Daniela’s creepy dad has to offer.”
Nomi appears next to Lito. He jumps. He hates when the others do that with no warning. “I’ve been reading through their emails,” she says, “and Consuelo Medel is the one you want to target. She’s been having doubts, noticing things she’s not supposed to. If you work on her, she might drop the information right into your lap.” She holds up her phone. “Also, Hardison says Daniela is safe.”
“Oh, thank God. Hernando and I were worried out of our skulls.” Lito rubs his palms on his jeans and barks out a few of his vocal exercises. “Okay. Okay. I’m ready. I think.”
“I believe in you, Lito,” Nomi says. She squeezes his shoulder. “I’ll call Hernando and tell him Daniela’s all right.” She disappears.
Lito can taste the tea in Kala’s mouth. There are dark smudges under her eyes. It’s the middle of the night in Mumbai. “I’m ready too.” And if she is, then Lito has to be.
He finds the name Consuelo stitched on the breast of a lab coat and walks up to her, armed with a smile and the certainty that no one can resist his charm. “Señora Medel?”
She starts away from her computer, wild-eyed. “Huh? Ah, yes?”
“I’m here with the latest shipment from Argentina,” Lito says. “Although – I’ve run some tests, and the results had me concerned. There are high levels of –” He looks down at his clipboard, and Kala does too, over his shoulder, her voice mingling with his own to pronounce names of chemicals that mean nothing to him.
“Keep your voice down!” Consuelo whispers. She does a double take. “The last time I mentioned contaminants in the product to my boss, he cut my health insurance. If you start talking to me like that where anyone can hear, I’ll be out on my ass.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Lito says, low. “We know about the way Mr. Velasquez does business. We won’t let him get to you. His three favorite thugs are unconscious by the canals.”
Consuelo stares at him. She leans in and says, “Who are you?”
Lito doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s an actor, a psychic, a liar, and now probably a criminal. But none of those are the answer this woman is looking for.
Capheus is the one who has the words, the one who comes to him and joins his voice with Lito’s to say, “I’m here to help. It’s what we do, my team and I.”
We’re a little more than a team, Lito thinks, not letting his unbalance show.
Capheus must have heard that thought, because he smiles. “Maybe we are something new in the world. That is exciting, don’t you think?”
Lito thinks of Consuelo, of the evidence they have to somehow smuggle out of this facility without getting noticed, of Daniela under protection from her father’s hired muscle and Hernando pacing and frantic at home. Yes. Exciting. That is definitely what it is.
He has no idea what to do. But Kala does.
“You see that machine over there?” she says, pointing. “That’s the mass spectrometer. It should still have records of the last hundred or so readings, even if the copies on the servers are tampered with. That’s where we’ll get what we need.”
Lito turns away from Consuelo and says to his comm, “Parker?”
“Yes, Lito?” says her voice in his ear. It’s nothing like Kala’s voice in his ear, so real and close he can feel her breath. It crackles a little over the line, Spanish tinged with an American accent.
“I’m in. I’m ready to do… ah, that thing you and your partners do.”
“Steal things?” Parker says brightly. “Provide leverage?”
“Yes. That,” Lito says. “Provide leverage.”